If Cal Payne's band gets labeled a jazz band, he's got no one but himself to blame. After all, the man plays a saxophone and that instrument's practically the go-to symbol for jazz music. Add to that the fact that his group, The Cal Payne Project, is all instrumental, and it's hard for anyone to imagine anything but jazz. But Payne says simply, "I don't know what to call it." The problem for so many musicians like Payne today is not that they don't school themselves in all sorts of styles, from country to rock to jazz, and play with an open mind--they do. The problem is that people see a group with a certain formation and tend to jump to the most obvious labels. While one can't know everything about a group from a three-song demo, The Cal Payne Project is certainly as rock, and, specifically jam-rock oriented as it is jazz oriented, and moves between darker moods and lighter solos without landing definitively anywhere. Now 37, the bandleader and his drummer, Curlan Moore, met in their high school band, and grew musically to play off one another instinctively. It was Moore who invited Payne to go to a special open mic session in New York City at a music studio called The Studio more than two years ago. Every Friday and Saturday night, the place would open its eight rooms and invite in musicians of various abilities to pick and choose open sessions devoted to different styles, from blues to jazz to rock. It was like a pick-up scene for musicians seeking to fill out their bands. You're allowed to go to any room you want, sit in and play," Payne says. Musicians on the more popular instruments (guitar, bass, drums) might have to form a line, but, as a horn player, Payne could almost always jump right into an improvisational session. And he could "try out" musicians without any messy commitment. I met everyone else there," he says. "Steve [Crumpton], the bass player, then Michael Burke [guitar] and Michael Drexler [keys]. I listened to them play... When I joined the whole thing, I always knew I was looking to find some musicians. I spent time jamming with them, talking to them, getting a sense of their personalities before I approached them. It's worked out really well from both a personality and creative standpoint." The songs the New York-based group has recorded in the past two years show an ongoing dialogue between the musicians that often leads tracks in directions a listener wouldn't anticipate. The opening song "Journey" pits the guitar and sax in a dynamic exchange, while Moore keeps a light touch on the drums, giving the two a place to fall back to. Burke's climbing finger acrobatics on guitar as the song builds would be at home on a festival stage, sending an audience into spacey rapture. Payne on sax follows with a showy solo of his own and as the drums build and the keys come cascading in, there's a real emotional intensity. It's the moods one senses most keenly with The Cal Payne Project. The way the sax rears up through a darker jam; the way the perspective shifts and shifts again as a song progresses. Being able to experiment musically at The Studio before forming the band was key for the way Payne writes and performs. "In a lot of my music I have elements that are very improvisational," Payne says, "and I like musicians that can pick up quickly and go in different directions. I do write parts and give them an idea of what I want, but I also want to know that they have the chops and the innovation to just go on their own. I really like to give musicians free rein to be creative within the context of what I'm trying to do." If it sounds like a free jazz mantra, it's probably because much of what Payne does incorporates jazz. There are moments on the seven-minute-plus "Cruise Control" that would sound at home on New York's CD101.9 "Smooth Jazz" station (whose symbol is, not surprisingly, a saxophone). But that's clearly not the overall effect that he's going for. In the surrounding minutes of the song, there are moody elements, the sax notes stretching out. It drops to a heavier jam and then lifts again with a high, melodic guitar lead and delicate keyboard run. As Payne's solo takes over, the drum and bass put some bounce into the rhythm, but soon that moves on, too, to a keyboard solo that's detached and buoyant. Drexler is given plenty of that freedom and inverts his classical training to sheer improv, relinquishing at the end to a wild sax flourish that finishes the song. Enough is happening at any one time that it doesn't feel over-long. Payne says it's the energy that the members bring to the group that keeps it engaging, and a listener will probably have a much better idea of their skills by catching them at the Green Room on Sat., Dec. 10, where they're playing a benefit for the Connecticut Food Bank. The group actually prefers a rowdy bar crowd to a sit-down, dinner-and-lounge crowd, further distancing themselves from traditional jazz players. The specific group of people and the style of music that we're bringing right now is very high energy and interactive audiences are what we love the most," Payne says. The show is free with two cans of food; interacting is optional, but highly recommended.” - Brita Belli

The Fairfield County Weekly